To many an Australian soldier she was simply ‘the girl with the flags’, but Miss Ethel Campbell was also known as the ‘Angel of Durban’, and by various other monikers. She was born in Scotland in 1886 but was living with her family in South Africa during the war years. After her fiancé was killed in the war, she devoted herself to caring for the troops who visited her city.
Working with the Y.M.C.A., Ethel, an expert signaler, began signaling to the troopships in 1915 as they arrived in the harbour: “Welcome, brave Australians. Come along to the Y.M.C.A. Hut, near the Town Hall.’ And then sending them a final farewell: ‘Good-bye, Australians. Good luck. Come back soon.’ Standing on the wharf or at the end of the breakwater semaphoring with her flags, she continued this practice through fair weather and foul right throughout the entire war, and was a very welcome sight to the troops after many weeks at sea.
Unlike other ports of call en-route to the war zone, Durban had a strict policy of closing all ‘public houses’ and hotel bars while military transports were in port, and so they offered the very best of wholesome entertainment through the YMCA. The YMCA Hut, known as the “Soldiers’ Rest”, stood in a tree-fringed reserve opposite the Town Hall, and was a large building where the troops could relax, write letters home, have a wash and of course partake of a great meal at a minimal cost. Concerts and other entertainments were also provided by the staff of ladies who quite happily mothered the boys and made them feel at home, none more so than the ‘Angel’ herself, Miss Campbell.
Ethel was not the only member of her family eager to look after the Australians while they were in port; her father Dr Samuel Campbell, an influential citizen of Durban, often entertained soldiers of all ranks in their home at Berra in the Durban hills.
As a result of all this ‘mothering’, a drunken soldier was a rare phenomenon in Durban, yet the Australians were still a target for disparaging remarks from some of the wealthy locals. On hearing of these remarks, Ethel who was a prolific writer of poetry, forwarded the following to a Durban newspaper:
[Dedicated to some of the “elite” of Durban, after hearing their opinions of the Australians. “We are not cotton spinners all, but some love England and her honour yet.”]
We stand on the shore of Durban,
And watch the transports go
To England from Australia
Hurrying to and fro,
Bearing the men of a nation
Who are heroes to the core
To stand in fact by the Motherland
And they’re sending thousands more!
We’ve watched the ships returning,
With the cripple and the maim,
With limbs that trail and falter
Their’s an immortal name.
The deathless name of “Anzac”
That thrills from pole to pole,
The remnants of the heroes
On the long and glorious roll.
And now in their tens of hundreds
Come the men to fill their ranks,
And what can we do to show them
Our love, our pride, our thanks,
We can’t do much (I own it)
But give them a passing cheer
While the real elite, beat a shocked retreat
Why, they saw one drinking beer.
O God! could we show these misers
The path that the “Anzacs” went!
Could they talk with a sneer of Australians
When one or two get drunk!
I’d rather a drunk Australian
Than a wealthy Durban funk!
He’s a better man than you are,
You dear teetotal saint!
You do not drink – you will not fight!
What a wonderful restraint!
We stand on the shore of Durban,
For we’re not all made like you,
And the glorious name of “Anzac”
Thrills us through and through!
But all we can do is to cheer them,
And throw them a trifle from shore,
We’re not millionaires (like some are)
Or perhaps we would try to do more.
They’re coming in tens of thousands,
And here’s to their honour to-day,
Here’s to the sister dominion
Who is showing us the way?
The ‘trifles’ that Ethel threw the soldiers from shore are best described by an Australian nurse. Mrs Isabella Throssell, the sister-in-law of Hugo Throssell (VC), had served with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service during the war, and was returning home with invalid troops many of them 1914 men, on the Runic in 1918. They arrived in the Fremantle harbour as the armistice was signed, but knew that they could not go ashore due to quarantine regulations. They did however expect some form of recognition from their countrymen, but were totally ignored both that day and the next. Mrs Throssell said that their “reception was a most chilling one – one which will take many years to efface from the memory”; “we lay there as an outcast”, and finally as human nature could stand it no longer, the cry went up across the ship, “Don’t you wish you were back at the last port?”
Their last port of course had been Durban, and Mrs Throssell explained:
“How different was the reception accorded the men there. On approaching port a launch came with Miss Campbell, the now world-famed girl signaler, who with her flags spoke thus: ‘Welcome to [censored] Thank you for what you have done for us. Are there Anzacs on board? A double welcome to them. We are proud of you. Sorry you cannot land, but can we do anything for you – shopping, etc.?’ Receiving an answer, ‘Yes,’ she arranged to have our orders sent down by basket, and went away to execute them, for many had come on board with short notice, I myself having but two hours’ warning. In the meantime a launch came out simply laden with fruit; those great coal baskets filled with bananas, oranges, pawpaws, passion fruit, boxes of cake, sweets, eggs (luxuries you people can never appreciate until you have been strictly rationed), all sorts of medical comforts and toilet accessories, papers, magazines, and games, even extra records for the gramophone. There was fruit enough to serve all round and to give three fruit salads per man. Think what that meant. The Australian residents sent a large issue of cigarettes, pipes, and tobacco to the officers and men, and a big box of sweets and cakes to each sister; and the troopship was one bower of flowers from stem to stern. On leaving we received a similar farewell. People lined the moles and cheered and cheered, and many boys registered a vow to visit this place at the earliest opportunity, regretting the necessity which prevented their landing then. The last thing seen was Miss Campbell waving au revoir and a safe journey home.
In appreciation for the many kindnesses shown them, the troops often took up a collection in order to purchase a gift for Ethel, amongst these were a gold watch; a set of silver toilet tableware, inscribed with her name and ‘From the Australian Soldiers’; and a writing table of Australian maple, specially commissioned for her. After peace was declared the Australian Comforts Fund presented her with a gold-mounted ACF symbol, and she received an MBE in 1919 for her services to the war effort.
The Returned Soldier’s League (R.S.S.I.L.A) showed their appreciation in 1923 with an invitation to Australia. They arranged Ethel’s itinerary and supplied her with private secretaries and guides to help her throughout the journey. Together with her parents she began her tour in Albany, where the first contingent had originally gathered in the harbour nine years before. On the arrival of her ship Diogenes on the 28th of June, a welcome message was signaled to her from the shore, and she responded in kind. Attending her first reception she was asked for a message to transmit to the returned soldiers of the Eastern states. Her message read: “Coo-ee! Be with you soon. Deeply touched and greatly gratified with Australia’s first welcome.” Travelling throughout the country she attended many functions in her honour, dedicated memorials and visited hospitals, and of course was warmly met by large crowds of diggers and their families everywhere she went.
During her visit, she discovered that it wasn’t the food and other comforts that the diggers had the fondest memories of; but her signals of greeting and the many poems she presented to them. “One man could recite all the poems I had written about the diggers during the war – nineteen of them!”
“……I could go on for hours telling of the wonderful kindness and hospitality of the Aussies; of the flowers, and the beautiful poems of welcome I got, and gifts ranging from the most treasured relics – such as a piece of the altar rail of the cathedral at Ypres, down to live wallabies and young kangaroos. The Federal executive of the league gave me the most beautiful album containing a hundred official photographs of the Australians at the front. The bouquets I got were wonderful – some were in the shape of troopships – and my railway carriage was always a bower of flowers. I was met very often with decorated motor cars, and in a number of towns the diggers pulled the car by ropes through the streets, and in one town I was carried shoulder high. In another, where I arrived at night, there was a torch-light procession. The town bands and pipers and even aeroplanes came out to meet me.”
“I saw a great deal of the working of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia and it impressed me very much. Largely through their splendid efforts the Australian returned soldier is getting wonderfully good treatment. Then the Limbless and Maimed Association in each State, and the Tuberculosis Association and Blinded Soldiers’ Association are all doing magnificent work….”
Having visited many hospitals Ethel also had the following to say:
“To what extent Australia did her wonderful part in the war is brought back to one by these scenes of suffering. ……. Many of those splendid young lives, frightfully crippled, have been suffering there as cot cases for the last eight or nine years. It is absolutely heart-rending. There is a man at Randwick with terrible injuries to his skin from mustard gas; he has been lying in a bath for eight years. One goes round the wards smiling, though one feels much more like weeping.”
Although most of their Australian visit was an endless whirlwind of war-related functions, the Campbells did manage to spend some time with family. While in Queensland they stayed with Dr Campbell’s sister Lady Cowley and her husband Sir Alfred Cowley, who during the war had been chairman of the Administration Committee of the Queensland Patriotic Fund and president of the Queensland Soldier’s Comforts Fund.
Returning to Durban in December, Ethel continued a regular correspondence with many soldiers and organizations; and in memory of Anzac day, would send messages of commemoration & hand-decorated copies of her verses to various R.S.S.I.L.A.s around Australia.
Dr Campbell died in March 1926 and in 1929 Ethel’s mother sold their home in the Durban hills and the 2 of them traveled the world for a couple of years, before eventually returning to Sth Africa and settling again in Durban.
Although the Great War was to be the war that ended all wars, when it was followed up by World War 2, Ethel once again took on her role of the Angel of Durban, welcoming the diggers of the 2nd AIF. Unfortunately in 1944 she suffered a nervous breakdown, and her mother asked the Australian newspapers to let it be known that she would not be able to reply to the huge mail she regularly received from Australia. As the result of her health, she found it necessary to move from Durban to Hilton, 70 miles away, though still managed the occasional visit to Durban while a troopship was in. However, due to her growing absences from the wharf, many of the boys took it upon themselves to ‘thumb’ their way to her home, and soon it became a part of their ‘duty’ to visit her. She dubbed her new home “Little Australia”, and there she entertained thousands of Australian troops who patted her dog “Digger”, played two-up on her two-up tower, and sang the songs she’d written about them.
As can be imagined, news of her death in April 1954 was received with great sadness throughout Australia, many diggers of both wars feeling a great sense of personal loss. We who follow can only be grateful for the comfort she brought our men in such troubled times, and yet relieved that the Angel’s services were not required for a third time.
Lest we forget the girl with the flags – Miss Ethel Campbell, M.B.E – the Angel of Durban
Endnotes: Two of Ethel’s brothers served with the RFC in WW1, one also went on to become a prominent poet. Ethel published a few books of her poems – most of which were about the Australian soldiers. One newspaper article notes that she was known by the 2nd AIF as Mrs Collins – but another source states she never married.
Heather (Frev) Ford, 2011